Whether they be retro liqueurs, tomorrow’s infusions, or the distilled extracts of vitamin K from a hitherto undiscovered Fijian fjord’s iceberg, they add colour and movement to your special’s list, your blackboards, your Facebook page, or your Twitter presence. The range of such exotica, how to best market and employ them, and how they can be perceived as a fun drink as opposed to a cynical cash-cow is the topic of this month’s installment.
First, the categories of exotic beverages and their nomenclature. There are three clear groups.
Distillates come to us from the ancient Arabic practices of perfumery, whereby scents could be created in what must have been considered an almost alchemical wonder. And while distilled grain brews such as whisky now dominate the spirits category, there are some more medievally inspired distillates (made from anything with sugar in it) that once claimed strong medicinal powers that are of interest to anyone purveying exotic beverages. The best-known of all of these is probably Campari.
Part of Spirit’s principal sub-category, Bitters, Campari’s reputation and business model is based on its base-spirit infusion and flavouring with determinedly bitter botanicals. Herbs and rinds and seeds and roots. Underberg, Unicum, Angostura, and Fernet-Branca are similar beasts.
Campari is the best known, but also perhaps the most controversial over the bar. If I had a Campari for every Campari soda I’ve been served with only 30ml of Campari in the glass, I’d be a much more Camparied man today than I currently am. Sophisticates know that true Campari soda has two essential things: no ‘and’ (indeed, if you’re asked for a Campari ‘and’ soda I’d only serve them 30mls…), and it also must contain 60mls of Campari.
Your other essential yet underutilised bitters is Angostura. Essential as a broad spectrum cocktail ingredient it can help you personalise your more fundamental mixed drinks in such a way as to be easily embedded into the minds and memories of your clientele. The simplest and best way to do this is to ask anyone ordering a gin and tonic (the ‘and’ is permissible here…) if they’d like it turned into a pink gin and tonic. Three droplets of Angostura and a whish with your $150 Riedel crystal swizzle stick and voilà. It’s one of the easiest marketing gimmicks going.
Bitters are also a very useful part of your late summer repertoire as they help clean up the stickiness of sweeter mixers. They also attract—or convince—a more European set of customers, as bitterness is the last of the four main taste sensations, and those who have acquired a taste for it are said to possess palates of greater maturity. Aren’t they the customers you want?
Some more conventional spirits themselves should be part of your exotica mix, too—principally cask-strength, cask-drawn single malt scotch whisky. This true rara avis is making something of a tiny, connoisseured splash in the continually über-cool laneway bar scene. These whiskies are unique as they are bottled from one cask, made in one year many moons ago, from one distillery.
There’s no blending or filtering or colour adjustment like you get in your bog-standard discounted bottle of ‘1000 Sporrans’. The result is a whisky that weighs in at about 60 per cent ABV, with often a much paler colour than normal whisky, and a nose, taste and texture as distinctive as it is unique. As far as exotica goes, this is real secret-squirrel stuff, with prices to suit; contact The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Australian outfit for further details. Visit www.smws.com.au.
Liqueurs are a very double-edged sword. On the one hand they contain such liquids of mass destruction as Malibu and Midori, yet within their ilk also exists such wonders as Pimm’s, sloe gin and crème de cassis. If the first of these, Pimm’s, isn’t being actively marketed by you in the warmer times of the year then I’d urge you to review current standing orders. Served in a tall glass with all the trimmings (cucumber, wedge of apple, maybe some borage, definitely mint, an orange zest twist, and then topped up with either soda or lemonade), it comes with its own sense of retro poshness—and even begs some clever profit taking by the addition of ‘affordable’ bar snacks to match. Cucumber sandwiches, boiled egg sandwiches, cream cheese and crudités…
The next two liqueurs mentioned—sloe gin and crème de cassis—can be profitably used to add some interest and oomph to your sparkling wine sales, particularly as a special aperitif. Adding a dash or two of the former to sparkling wine makes a neat Sloe Royale; similar addition of cassis to sparkler and you’ve got the classic Kir Royale.
Most customers would fence this category off around one drink—port. But there is more variety. Vermouth should certainly be on your radar as an addition to a range of mixed, long and tall drinks. Simple vermouth and sodas with plenty of ice and wedges of lemon or orange served in beer jugs could well be the next sangria. And of course that other fortified wine so taken up by the smart set in recent times—sherry—should well and truly be front and centre on your specials list, particularly a heavily chilled half bottle of fino around which you sell high-profit-margin tapas dishes.
Yet now a cautionary tale.
Exotica can also play other subsidiary roles within your workplace. A now retired but former celebrity publican acquaintance of mine from the St Kilda bar and restaurant strip in Melbourne recently commented to me that over
a 12-year period of running a small and successful bar, his business had, every fortnight, taken delivery and paid for 12 bottles of Jägermeister. Yet in every reporting cycle his bar ever spat out, Jägermeister never—not a single shot of it—went through the till. What was going on? Where did the Jägermeister go? “Oh, it was a ‘staff amenity’…” he said.